After Meloni's victory, is there a danger of fascism in Italy?

Winter 2022

This article is a translation from our sister organisation, Lutte 0vriere’s journal “Lutte de Classe ” No. 227 November 2022.

On September 25, Italy's so-called centre-right coalition won the general election - gaining a majority in both the legislative assembly and the senate.  This coalition brings together Forza Italia, led by the “irremovable” Berlusconi, Salvini's xenophobic (formerly Northern) “League” and Giorgia Meloni's neo-fascist party, Fratelli d'Italia (FI) - the “Brothers of Italy”.  In other words the “centre right” is clearly extreme right.

   It was the fall of the Draghi government that precipitated these elections.  A former president of the European Central Bank and perfect embodiment of the interests of the big bourgeoisie, Draghi had been heading a government of “national unity” which included almost all parties, from the left-wing Democratic Party to Berlusconi's troops, as well as Salvini's far-right League or the M5S, the Five Star Movement - which pretends it is against the whole system.  In the context of the worsening crisis, these latter three finally decided to jump ship in order to distance themselves from the government's most unpopular measures, thus bringing it down.  And now the new elections have given the upper hand to Fratelli d'Italia, which is the only party to have remained rigorously outside the successive government coalitions that have followed each other over the past 4 years, while the other parties have recorded quite catastrophic setbacks.

Meloni dethrones Saivini

The victory of Giorgia Meloni, who has now formed a government, has caused concern among a section of public opinion, especially on the left.  One hundred years after the “March on Rome”, which brought Mussolini to power in October 1922, how can one explain the victory of a party, Fratelli d'Italia, heir to the MSI, the Italian Social Movement, created in 1946 by Mussolini's followers?  Is this result a step towards fascism, or at least towards a more authoritarian form of government’?

    In any case, the victory of Meloni's party confirms that the far-right vote has unfortunately taken root.  These latest elections, however, do not reflect a massive advance of the right: with just over 12 million votes, the parties that make up the so-called centre-right coalition gained only 150,000 votes compared to the previous legislative election of 2018.  They even lost 800,000 votes, if we compare this result to the most recent elections, which were for the European parliament in 2019.

    It is the vote of the right-wing electorate which has shifted further to the right: from the League, to Fratelli d'Italia.  Salvini's League, which had gained close to 35% in the 2019 European elections, plunged to 9%, paying for its participation in the first Conte government and then in the Draghi government.  Meloni's opposition politics siphoned off League votes, rising from just over 6% in the 2019 European elections to nearly 29% this time around.

    In particular, Meloni appealed to the League's traditional petty-bourgeois electorate; those shopkeepers, small and medium-sized entrepreneurs who, after suffering the effects of the pandemic, are now suffering from soaring prices and fear a descent into poverty.  FI has probably also appealed to that section of the working class electorate which had already taken the step of voting for the League.

    But apart from the rise of FI (“Brothers of Italy” is the first line of the national anthem), the other significant result of these elections is the unprecedented rate of abstention.  As many as 39.2% of voters did not show up at the polls, especially in working-class areas.  This is a record for this type of election.  According to one polling institute, 50% of people who “declared themselves to be in economic difficulty” did not go to the polling booth.  The level of abstention was higher in the poorer south of the country than in the north.  And across the country, abstention levels in working-class neighbourhoods are well above the national average.

    The disinterest of the working-class electorate reflects a deep disgust with the privileged political classes.  Their policies in recent years have been marked by successive alliances and political U-turns “in the national interest”, behind which were, of course, the interests of big business, not to mention the self-interest of the politicians themselves.  But for the population there was only a continuing aggravation of the social situation.

    Meloni will be the first woman - and at the relatively young age of 45 - to become head of the government.  But the novelty stops there, because Meloni is an old hand at politics, elected for the first time as a regional councillor at 21, she became a member of parliament at 29 and two years later was appointed as a minister in Berlusconi's 2008 government.  And all this without having made any secret of her admiration for Mussolini, “a great statesman” whose actions were justified according to her, since they were done “for the good of Italv”.

The fascists’ march towards “respectability"

The MSI, or Italian Social Movement, from which Meloni's FI party emerged, was born in 1946 and brought together former Mussolini loyalists.  For almost forty years, it was the flag rallying those who were nostalgic for fascism.  Although it remained a minority party outside the various governmental combinations, it could count on an electoral base that regularly gave it between 5 and 10% of the vote, allowing it to have elected representatives and to operate a political apparatus.  One of the founders of the MSI, Giorgio Almirante, had been secretary of the magazine “The Defence of the Race” from 1938 to 1942 - the title says enough about its content - and in 1943, was on the executive of the Republic of Salo, the quasi-fascist republic set up in the north of the country, under Hitler’s influence.  None of this prevented Almirante from being a member of parliament from 1948, without interruption, until his death in 1988.  Nor did the law that was supposed to censor apologists of fascism, in force in Italy since 1952, prevent the MSI from organising an annual ceremony to commemorate the “March on Rome”.

    In fact, the heirs of fascism, in order to integrate themselves into the parliamentary republic, benefited from the complicity of the major so-called democratic and anti-fascist parties in the immediate aftermath of the war, but also before that, during the twenty years of fascist dictatorship.

    After the war, all political forces worked to rebuild the state apparatus as quickly as possible and to maintain the bourgeois order.  The Communist Party proved to be the most ardent supporter of the “national union”.  It even declared itself ready to collaborate with the monarchy if necessary, following the policy dictated by the Stalinist bureaucracy, in order toavoid a revolutionary crisis. On his return to Italy in 1944, the Communist Party's leader, Togliatti, made a speech that has become famous as the “Salerno turning point”, after the city where he gave it.  The Party's aim, he said, was no longer the workers’ revolution, but the liberation of the nation and support for the same king, Victor Emmanuel III, who had installed Mussolini in power in 1922...

    In the name of anti-fascist unity, the Communist Party was now to participate in all the governments from 1944 to 1947, ready to make any concessions in order to put the bourgeoisie and its state back in power.  And it was Togliatti himself, as Minister of Justice, who in 1946, granted an amnesty to the fascists, at the same time as the Republic was established, to show that the Communist Party was a responsible party which knew how to put the continuity of the bourgeois state before everything else.

    The state apparatus of the young republic therefore retained a good number of the “men of fascism”; in the police, the judiciary and the army, and among the senior officials of the administration. It also kept the same penal code.  Many fascist structures continued to exist, simply covered with a democratic veneer.  And not forgetting any reactionary aspect, the new republican constitution maintained a privileged position for the Roman Catholic Church.

    The parliamentary system required coalitions and agreements between parties to create majorities and form governments.  For decades, Christian Democracy, linked to the Catholic hierarchy, was the backbone of the system, seeking alliances sometimes on its left, sometimes on its right.  In 1958, it was one of its leaders, Tambroni, who, unable to find a majority to establish his government, accepted the votes of the MSI.  In the same year, he allowed the MSI to hold its first congress in a large working class city, Genoa.  This was an overt provocation for all those who, 15 years earlier, had fought against the fascist dictatorship.  Demonstrations and strikes took place in Genoa, leading to clashes with the police.  There were injuries on both sides, as some demonstrators were armed, determined to show that they were once again ready to take up weapons against fascism.  The movement of strikes and demonstrations spread to the whole country and the clashes resulted in about ten deaths.  The MSI congress could not be held, the Tambroni government fell, and this attempt to “normalise” the MSI’s post-fascists was postponed.

The years of “normalisation"

It was finally the great upheaval of political life in the 1990s that allowed the MSI to normalise itself at the cost of a facelift. In 1992, the Mani Pulite (clean hands) operation revealed the corruption that affected all the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie, for instance exposing the systematic bribery which occurred whenever public contracts were concluded.  The investigation tarnished the entire political class, almost two thirds of the deputies and senators were indicted, and this sounded the death-knell for the reign of Christian Democracy and the Socialist Party.

    Some time earlier, with the fall of the USSR, the CP had become self-sabotaging, completing a mutation that had begun many years earlier.  Basically, like the neo-fascists, the Communist leaders wanted to get rid of what was holding back their integration into parliament and their participation in the governments of the bourgeoisie.  So the Communist Party became first, the “Democratic Party of the Left” and then the “Democratic Party”.  “Of the left” obviously being too strong!

    When the baton passed from the old fascist guard around Almirante to the neo-fascists, the latter had already initiated the “smile and three-piece suit” policy, as its members' efforts to be polite and respectful of the democratic establishment were dubbed.  Under one of its leaders, Gianfranco Fini, the party distanced itself further from the fascist heritage, without denying it altogether.  It adopted the new name of “National Alliance”, not without some resistance and paid for it with a split.  The generation of Gianfranco Fini thus integrated the MSI, at the cost of a definitive change of name in 1995, into the so-called democratic political spectrum, although on its extreme right.  In order to avoid awkward questions, Fini invented the argument that his party was not neo-fascist, but “post-fascist”, indeed, as the whole country was now. 

    This was a way of refusing to disavow fascism, while giving a wink to the violent groups that continued to gravitate around the party, even though they no longer officially claimed to be fascist.  It has become a leitmotif.  Recently, La Russa, founder of FI with Meloni and a veteran of neo-fascism, and who has now been promoted to the presidency of the Senate, said mockingly on television: “We are all heirs to the Duce as Italians, in the sense that we are heirs to the Italy of our grandparents, for good or ill”.

     The early 1990s also saw the arrival of Berlusconi on the political scene.  This Milanese billionaire, a businessman in construction and the media, launched his party Forza Italia [“Go, Italy”) as if it was a brand of washing powder.  To build parliamentary majorities, the contribution of the men of “post-fascism”, now labelled as supporters of democracy, proved to be very useful.  In 1994, the first Berlusconi government was the result of an alliance between his party and all that the far right could offer at the time.  It included, on the one hand, the “Northern League”, the forerunner of Salvini's “League”, which was then not only xenophobic but secessionist, calling for the independence of the north of the country, and, on the other hand, Fini's “National Alliance”.  The “smile and three-piece suit” mutation led to the entry into government of “National Alliance” ministers, who were now fully respectable

A rewritten past

The neo-fascists have been able to “normalise” themselves all the better, because the past has been “smoothed” by the authorities.  In fact, the media, the government and school textbooks have been revising the past for several years. 

    This re-reading of history finally sees fascism and communism as two “totalitarianisms”, each having misled sincere young people, who, exalted and blinded by these ideologies were pushed into committing unforgivable acts.  Not daring to tackle the period of fascism itself head-on, this version initially relied on pointing to the period of the “Years of Lead” of the 1970s.  After the powerful strikes of Italy's “May 1968", far-right groups organised a series of indiscriminate attacks, in the hope of provoking a coup.  At the same time, in reaction to the betrayal of workers’ struggles by the reformist organisations, young people of the extreme left launched an armed struggle that led to the terrorism of the Red Brigades.

    Officially, this was portrayed as “enemy brothers”, red and brown, both “lost on the path of violence”.  There was a way of reasoning, or rather of not reasoning, which could equally be applied to the period of the war and the fascist dictatorship: violence is not acceptable, but nevertheless there is violence on both sides, so everyone has blood on their hands, and it is better to throw a veil over the whole of this past and move on.

    As far as the period of war and fascism is concerned, the “day of remembrance” commemorating the so-called “Foibe massacres”, has played this official role since 2005.  These massacres took place during the advance of Tito's anti-fascist communist partisans in 1943 and again in 1945, when suspected fascists among the local population of the Dalmatian and Trieste region were killed and thrown down “foibas”, or sinkholes and mine shafts.  Many of these victims had actively participated in the repression of the Slavic population [Mussolini had “Italianised”, invaded and occupied the whole of Yugoslavia, then Albania and then Greece).  Historians speak of hundreds of thousands of deaths which are blamed on the revenge of the Yugoslav partisans.  Some of the victims probably paid with their lives for simply having belonged to the Italian-speaking minority of Dalmatia.

    Traditionally, the extreme right uses the reminder of this bloody episode to draw a parallel with the crimes of fascism and nazism, considering that there was “ethnic cleansing” or even genocide of Italians.  It is only a short step then to comparing the Foibe to the holocaust of the Jews, a step that has been blithely taken not only by the inheritors of fascism, but also by the Italian democratic institutions.  Last February, for example, a circular from the Ministry of Public Education linked the day of commemoration of the Foibe, January 10, with the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp, which has become a day of remembrance of the Jewish Holocaust.

The test for Fratelli d'Italia in power

By creating Fratelli d'Italia in 2012, as a continuum of the “National Alliance”, Giorgia Meloni has also continued the revamping operation begun by Fini.  Unlike the historical leaders of the MSI, and using her own youthful language, Meloni no longer speaks of Mussolini as a great man, at least not in public, and she sings the praises of democracy.  In the delicate exercise of making herself presentable without offending the fraction of her base still loyal to “old” fascism, she condemns not fascism but “Nazism and communism” in the same breath.

    As for history, she only had to adopt the version already prepared by the Italian state.  It allows her to refer to the “crimes of Nazism and Communism” as equal, to declare the “end of ideologies” and to proclaim herself open to all those who want to “work for Italy, no matter how many sausages they ate at the Communists’ Unity Day”, as she asserted during her campaign.

    The content of her program is the same as that of any far-right party which wants to assure the bourgeoisie of its competence to manage its affairs, while seeking to deflect the anger of the working classes by pointing to immigrants as the enemy.  Between Salvini and Meloni, there has been a competition to see who can make the vilest remarks against migrants (and it is not always Meloni who wins), who can exhibit the greatest nationalism and who will appear the most devoted to religion - or not!  Meloni adds a note of conservatism likely to appeal to traditional reactionary circles, kneeling in front of a Madonna, “the mother of all Italians”...  Without saying she was opposed to abortion, she said that “we must help women who do not want to have an abortion to be able to avoid having one”; without saying she was hostile to homosexuals, she said she was in favour of the “traditional family” and condemned the laxity of the law, which would allow “delinquents”, who were necessarily foreigners(!), to gain rights before “honest” Italians.

    Meloni's first concern is to generate confidence in the ability of the Italian state to finance itself on the markets.  She needs to reassure financiers and the Italian big bourgeoisie.  This will inevitably involve new attacks on the working class, which is already paying a high price for the crisis.  The latest report from Caritas, the Catholic charity organization, illustrates the increase in poverty in the country.  It points out that “the energy crisis and rising prices are increasing cases of extreme poverty. 41 % of the new poor, people who had never before turned to Caritas, did so in the first half of 2022 because they could no longer pay their bills”.

    Indeed, workers are being pushed into precariousness and poverty and a fraction of the petty bourgeoisie is threatened with the same fate.  For the time being, this situation is reflected politically by a massive abstention of the working class and the progression of an extreme right that (so far) sticks to the electoral terrain.  But if tomorrow the government and the democratic institutions were no longer sufficient for the bourgeoisie to maintain its social order, it would find troops in Meloni’s party and beyond, to wield the stick against the exploited once again.

    The reactionary political evolution of recent years, and in particular the electoral successes of the extreme right, have encouraged xenophobic and racist activists and groups, such as Forza Nuova or Casa Pound, who have distinguished themselves by their violent, often murderous actions against immigrant workers.  There is no doubt that, if necessary, these people could provide the first troops of an authentic fascist movement.

    In this reactionary context, the working class is all the more in need of a new policy.  Unlike the Democratic Party, the distant descendant of the Communist Party, which proclaimed the “end of ideologies” long before Meloni, in order to better integrate itself into the bourgeois political establishment, the working class has an interest in reconnecting with its history and its original ideas, those of the workers’ movement, before the Stalinist Communist Party disguised and distorted them.  It has an interest in drawing all the lessons from its past experience, so as not to be disarmed and delivered hand and foot, first to the most ferocious exploitation, then to the most brutish and mindless reaction.

22 October 2022